WEC 2019 Day 2: Is the future of engineering human?

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Is the future of engineering human? It’s a big question, but a panel of experts had a go at finding an answer during the opening session of day two of the World Engineers Convention, happening now in Melbourne.

Moderator Jon Williams, Partner and Co-Founder of management consulting firm Fifth Frame, actually began the discussion with a question for the audience: How optimistic are you about the future of engineering? 

As the responses poured in (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being very optimistic, 1 being ‘we’re doomed’), it became clear that while there’s some uncertainty, many feel there will still be a place for engineers in the future. 

Panelists responded that the future of engineering is absolutely human, but all were in agreement that this will only be the case if the profession can shift in some fundamental ways.

John Sukkar.

Advances in technology are enabling new ways of working and thinking, said John Sukkar, Director – Engineering and Design for Data61. But rather than fear how technology might impact the role of engineers, he said the profession should see this as an opportunity.

“As we go through digital transformation, it’s not an elimination of jobs but rather a shift in skill sets,” he said.

Take manufacturing as an example: 50 years ago, it was a very labour-intensive industry, but today many processes are automated. As we move into Industry 4.0, the same shift is likely to happen for more professional services roles, like engineering, law and medicine.

Rather than be a threat to engineers or taking jobs, Felicity Furey, Co-founder of Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University, said tech will amplify our abilities and allow engineers to achieve more with less.

However, she emphasised that as technology makes inroads into industry, the skills required to be a ‘good’ engineer will change. 

“We will need engineers with empathy, ethics, good communication skills, collaboration, creativity and a healthy dose of scepticism — you can’t get that from tech,” she said. 

“We need the left brain and the right brain, the art and science, to come together.”

Meredith Westafer, Senior Industrial Engineer at Tesla, agreed, and added that regardless of what the future brings, the core purpose of engineering will remain the same: solving problems for people. 

“What will change is how we do that,” she added.

As tech frees engineers from the more repetitive or mundane tasks, Westafer said they will be able to concentrate on interesting and creative work — “work with a purpose”. She added that this makes it imperative for organisations to start thinking about the message they broadcast to the world about what it’s like to work there.

“Being able to attract the best talent is doing something people want to do – it’s the message you send about why your organisation exists,” she said. 

She spoke of an experience that, based on the murmurs of agreement from the audience, is a familiar one for engineers: in school, engineers are encouraged to “think big”, but once they enter the workforce, they often become hobbled by processes and the ‘this is how it’s always been done here’ mentality. 

“Let creative engineers create if you want to retain them,” she implored. 

Automating ethically

As technology takes over more of these tasks, though, engineers face an ethical dilemma: if there is a gradual reduction in people’s involvement in more manual or repetitive tasks, do engineers have a responsibility to keep people in jobs — even if they don’t need to be there?

Meredith Westafer.

To answer this question, Westafer drew on her own experiences working to design Tesla’s Gigafactory, which does incorporate autonomous technology. 

“As someone who has installed a fair amount of automation, it’s important to understand things from the side of the people displaced by the technology,” she said. 

Crucial to this is thinking about the types of jobs replaced; many of them are mundane or dangerous jobs, jobs “we don’t want humans to be doing”.

“We have an ethical imperative to keep people safe,” she said. 

“If [technology] is replacing a good job, organisations are ethically bound to retrain people. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious that organisations should be taking care of that, but if you put the onus on the person whose job is being replaced, that’s just not right.

“We need to automate ethically.” 

What are the right skills?

Upskilling the current workforce is one thing. But what about for the next generation of engineers? If the future is uncertain, how can we prepare people today to deal with the challenges of tomorrow?

In her role at Swinburne, Furey said they took this question to industry and asked engineering companies what skills they need in their organisations. The answers surprised her.

“We thought for sure it would be technical skills, but actually they came back with skills like communication, collaboration, being able to influence people, even knowing how to write a good email,” she said. 

She believes that in order to teach these skills, students need to be working on real-world projects and solving real problems as part of their degree. 

Sukkar said cultivating the skills future engineers will need also means “encouraging and rewarding people for taking risks and thinking big”.

Furey agreed, and said ‘why’ will become the most valuable question an engineer can ask. Organisations need to encourage this behaviour, she added.

“Create psychological safety in your organisations to encourage people to take risks. Give people the freedom to fail,” she said. 

Felicity Furey.

As the role of engineers changes, all the panelists agreed that they are looking forward to seeing more engineers in leadership positions. According to Furey, 21 per cent of S&P CEOs come from engineering backgrounds, which is more than lawyers or accountants.

She said the skills required to be a great leader are changing, and engineers have an amazing opportunity to step up to the challenge.

“The top skill required to be a leader today is to empower people … it’s no longer about command and control, it’s about support and empower,” she said. 

It also swings back around to the ‘why’, Westafer said, and great engineering leaders need to actively encourage that in their organisations. For example, she said Tesla CEO Elon Musk pushes first-principles thinking for all their work.

“It’s not about building an electric car the way everyone else has built an electric car. We need to be asking ‘what is the real question we are trying to answer? What is the problem we are trying to solve?’ and then work from there,” she said. 

To find this mentality for future Tesla engineers, one question Westafer always asks during interviews is: If I have a manufacturing line that is 1000 m long, how big is the factory?

“If someone responds with ‘you haven’t given me enough information’, they aren’t hired,” she said.

“I’m looking for people who ask as many questions as they want. What are we optimising for? How many parts are there? What are we building? That’s the kind of thinking we are looking for.” 

At the end of the sessions, Williams polled the audience with the same question as at the start: How optimistic are you about the future of engineering? 

Perhaps luckily for all, and as a testament to the quality of the insights shared by the panelists, engineers came out of the discussion more optimistic that people have a place in the future of engineering than when they arrived. 

WEC 2019 Day 1: Why engineers are vital to more liveable cities

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It’s only fitting that a discussion about what makes for liveable cities should take place in the most liveable city in Australia. 

Engineers from around the world met in Melbourne for the World Engineers Convention (WEC), which kicked off today with a look at the role the profession plays in creating urban spaces where people can live, work, play and thrive — now and into the future.

Professor Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati, summed up the reasoning for creating more liveable, sustainable cities in four numbers: 2, 50, 75, 80. Cities take up 2 per cent of the planet’s surface, yet they have 50 per cent of the world’s population, consume 75 per cent of the energy and generate 80 per cent of emissions. 

“Making our cities more sustainable can have a huge impact at the global level,” he said. 

Stephen Yarwood, an urban futurist and former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, took up this message and said the exponential pace of technological advancement offered so many opportunities for engineers and city designers. 

He pointed to innovations such as 3D printing, peer-to-peer networks like blockchain, autonomous technology, ‘smart’ technology, and mobility as a service (MaaS) as forces that will have huge impacts on how people live in and move around cities. 

“Technology will create a new urban operating system … data will become an overlay for cities, which will become these complex systems and operate almost like living organisms,” he said. 

Both Ratti and Yarwood agreed that the amount of data we can now capture is “a bit of a Pandora’s Box”, but, for now, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“We can see dimensions of the environment we couldn’t see before, which lets us solve problems in different ways,” Ratti said. 

Knowing your end user

Later, Yarwood was joined onstage by Marco Assorati, Operations Regional Director SAE and Oceania for Salini Impregilo; Paul O’Halloran, Executive Director Network Integration for Metro Trains Melbourne; and Tanya Ha, Director of Engagement for Science in Public and WEC Master of Ceremonies for a panel discussion about engineering liveable cities. 

One common thread throughout the discussion was the importance of stakeholder engagement.

Assorati used a current Salini Impregilo project — the Perth Airport rail link — as an example of how the company prioritised communicating with end-users. He said it’s important to keep communities and end-users informed because “their lives are most impacted by these changes”. 

O’Halloran added to this by saying that, as a transport operator, it’s important to share information with end-users in an accessible way so people can make the most informed decisions about how to get from A to B.

A question from an audience member about how to balance short-term and long-term goals sparked a wave of nods from many others in attendance, as it’s a common problem experienced by those who have to forecast for future demand, which many engineering roles do. 

O’Halloran said it’s a hard task, but it’s important to plan in a way that’s agnostic about factors such as political cycles, as infrastructure spending in Australia can depend on who controls Parliament.

Assorati added that while we can’t predict the future, “we can be prepared for it”, and that means creating infrastructure that’s adaptive. 

“The key to liveability is not necessarily building more things, but we need smarter ways to build things,” he said.

It’s definitely true for Melbourne, as the things that make it liveable now will change as the population grows, said O’Halloran. What’s important, he said, is doing the most with what you have.

“Building new infrastructure needs to be done, but with moderation — we need to optimise what we already have,” he said. 

More than city centres

Later in the day, several speakers added to the conversation about the future of liveability by sharing their experiences on topics ranging from smart infrastructure to community engagement, and where engineers fit into the mix of creating sustainable urban landscapes. 

As a reminder that liveability doesn’t just apply to large capital cities, WSP New Zealand’s Philip McFarlane presented insights on how to enhance liveability in smaller or more regional areas through community-centric approaches and affordable digital tools.

The team reported on Building Better Homes and Cities, a National Science Challenge research project in New Zealand that involved partnering with two regional district councils to identify what’s required to create an affordable yet comprehensive community-centric approach to asset management. 

The project came out of the need for councils to connect with communities when making asset decisions, and to help councils answer some pressing questions like what level of service people are willing to pay for, and what’s the ongoing conversation.

“Regional areas have smaller everything — smaller budgets, smaller resources — but their people have the same needs as cities. How do we develop affordable tools to address this?,” he said.

“How do we capture needs and wants of the community, and how do those change over time?” 

Through their work, the WSP team identified key factors for determining what will be useful digital tools. They found creating ‘smart cities’ isn’t about implementing the latest, shiniest piece of technology. 

McFarlane said the first question to answer should be “How do you give purpose to data, and link it together so the community can understand it?”.

“For example, if I told people that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, we could have this piece of infrastructure — we need to develop that narrative,” he said. 

And from there, like anything else: prototype and test, test, test. 

From the ground up

Retrofitting existing communities is an important step in bringing more places into the age of the smart city, but what if you could create a smart, sustainable city from scratch?

That’s the situation Jonathan Howe, from Jacobs, found himself in when he became involved with the Australian Education City (AEC).

AEC will be a $30 billion “super city”, built on a 412 ha site located 25 km from Melbourne’s CBD. Creating this community from scratch lets “ideas come to life”, Howe said, and he’s excited by the prospect of creating an eco-city that puts community and people first — made possible by clever use of digital engineering. 

Use of digital technology proved invaluable during design, allowing the creators to “find the balance between digital expression and intuitive know-how”, Howe said, and allowed the team to “optimise recursive design cycles” and create an evidence-based design. 

“Data was invaluable to this process,” he said.

Digital twin technology was also crucial. For this project, Howe said they used both a data-rich model, and then a model that was “more creative” and focused on design expression. 

“Ultimately these two would come together, but there is a need to have both,” Howe said. 

“If you’re not doing a digital twin on this scale, you’re lost.”

While the project is a 30-year long game, Howe hopes it can serve as a blueprint and a benchmark for future sustainable developments.

Is the future of engineering human?

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Predictions about how technology will change engineering can get pretty dire — to the point where some are unsure if people will still have a place in the profession in the future.

But if you ask Jon Williams, Partner at Fifth Frame and panellist at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, that’s a stretch.

“Clearly, the future of everything is human, or else there is no future,” said Williams, who will be moderating the session ‘Is the future of engineering human?’ on day two of WEC.

What’s up for debate, though, is how the role of engineers will change in years to come. Will engineering become a profession where automation and artificial intelligence perform the majority of tasks with a few human overseers? Or will it be a thriving, design-led profession doing better things, with technology as an enabler?

A mix of skills

According to Felicity Furey, Co-founder at Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University, the importance of keeping engineers in the equation will only increase as the world becomes a more complex place.

“Our designs are affecting more people every day, and the scale at which we influence the world is pretty big,” she said. 

“Now we’re dealing with very complicated projects and lots of systems. As engineers, we need to consider how everything works in the system, and how our projects and design absolutely influence that bigger picture, and not just the individual projects that we’re working on.”

Creativity and adaptability will define engineering into the future, she said, combined with the logical problem-solving that is every engineer’s bread and butter. 

“It’s no longer acceptable for engineers to go and build things … without community consultation, and that makes our projects better, because you get people on board early and it’s collaborative,” Furey said. 

John Sukkar, Director — Engineering and Design, CSIRO Data61, agreed, saying that while the need for technical skills won’t change, being able to understand and apply human-centred design will be in demand.

“All things being equal, an engineer who understands the customer problem and the ecosystem where their project is going to live — I think they’re the ones that will really excel,” said Sukkar, who will be appearing on the panel with Furey and Williams.

Changing expectations

Part of this requires preparing the next generation of engineers to work and thrive in this changed environment. Through her work with Power of Engineering, Furey sees firsthand how young people today perceive engineering — and it’s not always accurate. 

“Men in overalls fixing cars” is a common response, she said. While some engineering roles do mean wearing hard hats and working on construction sites, the possibilities of what engineers can do and accomplish is almost endless.

“That’s the point of our work: to shift those perceptions,” Furey said. 

So to is changing perceptions about what skills are required to become a successful engineer. Her biggest focus is communicating that mathematics and science are important, but so are complex reasoning, problem solving, collaboration and communication.

“I think it’s important that students can think for themselves and think through problems … critical thinking skills can be more important than knowledge, so students aren’t just asking ‘How can I memorise this maths? Is this going to be on the test?’,” she said.

The great enabler

“The pace of change and our inability to predict the future in even a short time frame” are massive influences on the future of work, said Williams. He added that change will continue — and likely accelerate — so “we need to go with it”.  

Technology can help bridge some of this gap, but future engineers need to think of it as an enabler instead of a replacement, said Furey.

“It’s really important to remember that technology is just a pathway, and it’s an enabler — it’s not the solution. Rather than think ‘AI will do this or that’, we need to think through what’s the problem I’m trying to solve and how could this help me solve that problem,” she said.

Technology is already so pervasive, Sukkar said, that every engineering role will come to require some skills working with data and digital systems. However, he feels technology should be used to augment human capability, rather than replace it.

“I think we’ll see a future where people are supported by machines to be able to be more productive and more functional,” he said.

He emphasised that while being familiar with digital technologies like data analytics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence is good, these systems will make the human side of engineering more important.

“As we start having human-machine interfaces, as we start having autonomous and intelligent machines navigating their own way around society, human-centred design is going to be critically important to guide engineers on how to build ethical things,” Sukkar said.

Purpose is also becoming increasingly important within the engineering profession. Furey said she is surprised at how important issues like sustainability are to students she meets through her workshops.

Starting with ‘why’ is something Sukkar strongly believes in as well.

“As engineers, as an engineering community, whether we’re very early in the research stage and innovating in technology or whether we’re late-stage, actually building the integrated solutions or solving an applied problem, you have to start with why you are doing this,” Sukkar said. 

“If you can always start with ‘why’, I think that’s going to be critically important for engineers who want to see the fruits of their work have an impact.”

Jon Williams, Felicity Furey and John Sukkar will be appearing on a panel discussing the future of the engineering profession at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. There’s still time to register! Learn more here.

Barangaroo precinct sustainability

Steel’s sustainability role in iconic Barangaroo precinct

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InfraBuild is helping construct a sustainable and world-class precinct in Australia’s largest city by taking active steps to reduce the embodied carbon in its steel products.

Lendlease’s Barangaroo precinct on the western shoreline of Sydney’s CBD is creating a major urban zone with leading sustainability credentials and world-class amenities.

Barangaroo South’s leadership in demonstrating sustainability initiatives and advanced workplace design has led to it winning several awards, most notably the prestigious Australian Development of the Year award at last year’s Property Council of Australia Innovation and Excellence Awards.

Lendlease said its goal for the wider Barangaroo development is for it to be “the first of its size in the world to be climate positive – that is, to be carbon neutral, water positive and to generate zero waste”.

Already, 89 per cent of all the on-site waste is recycled, reused or repurposed. As a comparison, the average commercial building food court recycles only 25 per cent of its waste.

Steel manufacturer and distributor InfraBuild (formerly LIBERTY OneSteel) played a significant role in the already-completed Barangaroo South precinct through its integrated and collaborative supply of Australian-made reinforcing and structural steel.

InfraBuild Construction Solutions (formerly LIBERTY OneSteel Reinforcing) supplied more than 45,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel product to the Barangaroo South precinct over a 4.5-year supply period. Processes were implemented to ensure a 20 per cent reduction in embodied carbon for the reinforcing steel used, which contributed to the project being awarded a Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) Six Star Green Star – Communities rating, the highest available. All product was delivered with Australasian Certification Authority for Reinforcing (ACRS) certification.

Barangaroo South’s sheer scale and its CBD location added a layer of complexity that required detailed collaboration between InfraBuild Construction Solutions and the project’s construction partners, including developer Lendlease.

Embracing green renewal

Property Council of Australia Chief Executive Ken Morrison praised Sydney’s newest urban redevelopment, which he said “has recalibrated the way Australians think about precinct-scale urban renewal”.

“Lendlease has combined iconic buildings designed by acclaimed architects with world-leading sustainability initiatives that have transformed entire supply chains and challenged large tenants to embrace green business practices,” Morrison said.

With the southern precinct now complete, attention has turned to the landmark Crown Sydney project at the northern end of the Barangaroo site, with InfraBuild supplying 2500 tonnes of structural steel, welded beams and plate to what will be Sydney’s tallest habitable building when it tops out in 2021.

Engineering for humanity and liveability will be explored in detail at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.

How 3D printing, generative design and automation will revolutionise the built environment

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Advances in technology like 3D printing and generative design are helping reinvent building and construction for the 21st century.

Mention an industry that has been disrupted by technology, and manufacturing immediately springs to mind. For some, it’s a symbol of how innovations like robotics and machine learning are optimising processes and improving productivity.

But if you ask some in the construction industry, it’s a warning sign of things to come. According to Andy Cunningham, Regional Director at software solutions provider Autodesk, construction can be very tech averse. Thoughts of digitisation and automation play into two common fears about the rise of technology: one is the complexity involved; the second is job loss.

“People in construction and building tend to gravitate towards manufacturing as an example of what can happen,” said Cunningham.

The reality, he said, is that technology has the potential to solve some really big challenges in the industry.

“There’s a skills shortage in engineering, so the question becomes how can we implement technology to optimise our human capital, and in the process free up people to do more interesting work,” Cunningham said.

Pioneering technology

The overarching theme of the World Engineers Convention is sustainability, and making the built environment more sustainable can have a huge impact at the global level. At WEC, Matt Gough from Mace (a global construction and consultancy company and Autodesk customer) will feature as a keynote speaker, sharing more about the future of making and sustainability. He will focus specifically on how to address the housing crisis by creating capacity and scale, and reducing the impact on the environment at speed.

By 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion people. In Australia, the current population of 25 million will grow to 41 million in that same timeframe, while the number of people dwelling in the country’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, will balloon to nearly 8 million each. That’s almost double the present day.

The challenge, said Cunningham, is not just to build more infrastructure to meet these future needs, but for the building industry to do more with less. Technology and the benefits it brings – data, reduced cost, increased productivity – will be crucial to achieving this.

“There are huge sustainability improvements to be had in construction: 30 per cent of construction material ends up as waste, and buildings consume 20 per cent of our water and 40 per cent of our energy. We can’t keep doing what we’re currently doing,” Cunningham said.

Developments like building information modelling (BIM), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and 3D printing are game changing for building and construction, and each brings something different to the table.

Generative design can explore thousands of new forms and help engineers tap into their creative side.(Image: Autodesk)

BIM, which Autodesk is known for pioneering, is particularly useful when it comes to optimising designs to be more energy efficient.

“The ability to learn what works, what doesn’t, and to optimise operations based on what the data is telling you to make buildings more sustainable is a huge benefit,” Cunningham said.

Learnings on a building-by-building basis can then be extrapolated to the wider network, he added.

“What changes can then happen on the macro scale for a whole city? We can supersize these learnings from individual buildings to see what needs to change and work towards creating more smart cities,” Cunningham said.

Beyond sustainability, Cunningham said technology is enabling imagination and creativity in the engineering profession as well.

One promising development in this space is generative design, where the user sets constraints and a program produces numerous options based on the parameters.

Cunningham also sees huge potential for integrating 3D printing and other manufacturing methods into construction processes to bring them into the 21st century.

“People still think of 3D printing on a small scale, but it’s now moving into new forms, incorporating new materials like metals and aggregates,” Cunningham said.

“Modular construction is also having a huge impact, and it’s bringing down costs and construction waste, and increasing productivity.”

An Autodesk 3D printer at work. (Image: Autodesk)

He points to some recent examples of how these technologies are helping companies become more innovative, all while helping reduce their footprint.

One is Factory OS, a company based in the US that is using a modular factory method in home construction. According to the company, this method is 20 per cent cheaper and 40 per cent faster than traditional methods.

Another example is Van Wijnen, a construction firm based in the Netherlands. They use BIM software to identify clashes in designs to reduce sequencing changes on site. The firm is also combining BIM with generative design to create a unique spin on urban planning by setting predetermined goals like solar energy potential, backyard size and costs – and letting the software generate countless layout options.

A Van Wijnen design.

Building a community

If past experience is anything to go by, it’s hard to predict how this technology will evolve in the next five years, never mind the next 100. But if he had to guess, Cunningham said he expects to see these technologies create new improvements across the building and construction industry.

“Advancements in material handling will be really exciting, especially the use of 3D printing. We’ll see forms we’ve never seen before and better marriage of form and function,” he said.

However, there’s one thing Cunningham is sure off: it has to be a better, more sustainable world.

“The construction space is the big piece of the sustainability puzzle … We can’t afford to engineer in isolation. It’s imperative to consider how the surrounding community will be affected – we don’t just build a building, we build a community,” Cunningham said.

“There are big benefits when these concepts get translated into the real world.”

The future of engineering innovation and technology will be explored in detail at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.

University of Melbourne School of Engineering

Engineering education has changed a lot in 100 years – what needs to happen in the next century?

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Back in 1861, Australia’s first engineering school opened at the University of Melbourne with just 15 students. In the 150 years since, global market forces and changing expectations have continuously redefined what is needed to prepare the profession’s future leaders.

According to Professor Mark Cassidy, Dean of Melbourne School of Engineering and a keynote speaker at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, engineering is the ‘action’ arm of the STEM professions — the application of science and technology and maths to find solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

He said today’s engineering students identify strongly with this ethos and are hungry for opportunities to leave a positive mark on society.

“They can see what the issues facing the world are and they really want to make a difference,” he said.

According to Professor Cassidy, the challenge this sets for universities is to create programs that meet this desire for practical experience while also laying a strong theoretical foundation.

Another thing that sets today’s young engineers apart is many have more of a ‘problem-finding’ mindset, Professor Cassidy said, and they want to pursue solutions to issues they are passionate about. He said this entrepreneurial spirit is a big shift from when he was an engineering student.

“We all just wanted to work for a major corporation or government, but now this entrepreneurial spirit is very strong in a lot of students,” he said.

“They see it as a different pathway, and that’s something that bodes well for the future of Australia.”

A precinct approach

Providing this balance is the driving force behind the university’s $1 billion investment to see the Melbourne School of Engineering 2025 (MSE2025) strategy to completion. This includes two new large-scale developments devoted to the discipline. Melbourne Connect will focus on data science and digital technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, and co-locate academia, industry and students. MSE’s new campus at Fishermans Bend will be an innovation precinct, a place for large-scale interdisciplinary research and project-based teaching.

“Both precincts are looking at where engineering will go in the future, and we’re hoping to co-locate with industry to give our students experience” Professor Cassidy said.

Professor Mark Cassidy,

“We also want to make sure our academic work is really focused on the challenges that are facing the world into the future to ensure we are making a difference with what we do in our research and our teaching.”

When asked what the university is currently known for, biomedical engineering immediately sprung to Professor Cassidy’s mind. University of Melbourne Professor Graeme Clark’s work on the bionic ear is a well-known example, and more contemporary projects include creating a brain-computer interface that allows a prosthetic to be manipulated with just a thought. Robotic exoskeletons are another promising project.

On the cyber side, the school is moving more into cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence. This work is applied in many sectors, again linking back to health. As a biomedical example, Professor Cassidy mentioned the use of sensors plus machine learning to predict the likelihood of someone having an epileptic seizure.

“Can we have sensors connected to the brain that are able to predict in real time when someone might have a seizure?” he said.

A precinct-based approach is representative of the shift to project-based teaching. In this way, industry and academia have a symbiotic relationship: more engineering students are asking for and expecting this industry-relevant training, and for its part, industry is looking for graduates who are ready to apply what they’ve learned to real-world scenarios.

“Industry are looking for graduates who are industry-ready, and hungry to apply their fresh perspectives and skill sets to the new organisations they join. We’re ensuring our graduates are prepared to do just that,” Professor Cassidy said.

This means universities can no longer do what Professor Cassidy refers to as “postbox work”, where industry and academia conduct their work separate from each other and researchers send their work to industry in a postbox, never to be applied to solve a challenge or deliver an outcome.

“A lot of the grand challenges engineers are facing are multidimensional and multidisciplinary. They need larger teams to come together — teams comprising academics and industry,” he said.

“We’re trying to really put those together. Our strategy is much more about engagement, it’s much more about partnerships and it’s much more about building larger teams together to work on these issues.”

On top of that, engineering careers — and the skills required to undertake them — are changing at a rapid pace. How can students entering school now prepare for a profession that might look quite different by the time they graduate?

Professor Cassidy said one way he thinks Melbourne School of Engineering is answering that question is by giving students a broad range of electives to build out a diverse skill set. For example, he said the new precincts will look to marry data science and engineering to prepare students for Industry 4.0.

“There’s much more emphasis on the ability to interpret data, so we look at adding computer science applications to all of our degrees,” he said.

City living

Being a CBD-based university also gives Melbourne School of Engineering an opportunity to place this work in terms of benefit to society, Professor Cassidy said. Melbourne is undergoing a period of immense change, from large city-shaping infrastructure projects to steep population growth – all while trying to maintain its crown as the country’s most liveable city.

Professor Cassidy said the engineering school’s new precincts will play a key role in helping Melbourne navigate through these looming challenges. He sees the University of Melbourne’s role as a convener, uniting startups, academics, entrepreneurs, industry and the future workforce to flesh out ideas and tap one another for expertise. Melbourne itself also serves as a living lab and testing ground for these ideas and technologies.

One example of field testing ideas in this way is AIMES, or the Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem. Located in Carlton, adjacent to the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, on 6 square kilometres is the “most highly sensored area of roads, footpaths, intersections and traffic lights in the world”, Professor Cassidy said.

Nearly 50 companies joined together with the university to test how sensors and smart technology can be used to improve the way we move around the city. Everything from traffic lights to parking meters to cameras are being used to test pain points and gauge how people move through an urban environment.

“Anyone who has been in Melbourne knows there’s quite a bit of traffic, but all cities are going through that,” Professor Cassidy said.

“If you look around the world, with the desire to keep cities moving and enhance liveability, we need to design better systems for transport, traffic and vulnerable road users. It’s the use of data like that from AIMES that will make a big difference.”

A mirror to society

As the world becomes more connected and collaborative, Professor Cassidy said engineering educators need to lean into the challenge of making sure the profession reflects this.

“The design of society is affected by who creates it. And if engineers are creating society through the application of science, then we need to have diversity in the student cohort, so that our future engineering professionals are a true representation of our society,” he said.

Boosting the number of women in engineering is an imperative for educational institutions and private organisations alike. Australia’s engineering workforce is only 12 per cent female, and while issues like workplace recruitment and retention affect that number, establishing a robust talent pipeline is firmly within a university’s remit.

Across engineering and IT, Professor Cassidy said women make up 34 per cent of Melbourne School of Engineering’s student body, a number he is particularly proud of.

“That is the highest in Australia, and we’ve been nudging that up a per cent or so a year,” he said.

Getting there has been and remains a concerted effort by a team of professional and academic staff. The school employs a suite of programs to attract diversity of gender and culture into engineering degrees and keep them there. One of its most successful programs for girls is the three-day Girl Power engineering camp for Year 9 students at the Parkville campus.

But beyond gender, Professor Cassidy said diversity in all its forms is important for shaping the future of the profession. For example, the Melbourne School of Engineering is working to increase the number of Indigenous engineering students. The school hosts and coordinates the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School (VIEWS) program alongside three other universities, which brings Indigenous Australian students from around the country to Melbourne to showcase opportunities in STEM education through the lens of problem-finding and hands-on experience.

The school is also focused on rural and regional impact. One initiative, the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC) taps into the creativity and drive of students in the Mallee district of Victoria to work on projects that more directly affect their communities and local economy, particularly agriculture.

“Agriculture is a big industry in Australia, and there are really interesting problems to solve in that space. How can we apply tech tools including automation, computer vision, robotics and drones to farming?” Professor Cassidy asked.

The Melbourne School of Engineering is halfway through its MSE2025 transformation strategy, and it has “massive ambitions” for the future, said Professor Cassidy.

So, where will the school be by 2025? Professor Cassidy said by then he wants the University of Melbourne to be internationally known for the quality and contributions of its engineering and IT research – and for its outstanding graduates.

“Whether it’s in the transport system, or biomedical engineering … I see demonstrable examples of how our work is contributing to society,” he said.

What are the major trends influencing engineering education? How can today’s professional prepare the next generation of engineers? This will be a them at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here

Darron Lomman plastic recycling

Meet one engineer transforming plastic waste into the filament of the future

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Perth-based mechanical engineer Darren Lomman is working to stop plastic waste ending up in our oceans by converting it into 3D printer filament.

In December 2016, Darren Lomman was watching television in his lounge room when he saw an advertisement that changed the course of his career. The ad was for reusable water bottles and included an alarming statistic: by the end of 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

“My first reaction was that it sounded far-fetched,” he said.

“I looked it up and found that it’s actually based on scientific research. I have a 2-year-old daughter — is this the kind of legacy we’re leaving for our kids?”

It was that initial curiosity that led Lomman to discover an uncomfortable truth about the state of plastic recycling in Australia. It was his knack for problem solving, however, that prompted him to make a difference.

After six months of research, Lomman launched GreenBatch, a social enterprise that is building a system to reprocess plastic bottles into 3D printer filament. The plastic will be collected by a broad network of secondary schools in Western Australia and the filament will be returned to the schools for their 3D printing projects.

Backed by institutions such as the University of Western Australia, GreenBatch is also receiving assistance from industry giants such as WorleyParsons, and Lomman is fast building a strong community of supporters who share his passion and purpose.

Starting up again

At the age of 34, Lomman might be regarded as a veteran of the Australian start-up scene. While a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Western Australia, a chance meeting with a fellow motorcycle enthusiast prompted him to launch his first enterprise, Dreamfit, a not-for-profit organisation that develops innovative equipment to enhance the mobility of people with disabilities.

During his 15 years as CEO, Lomman grew the enterprise from humble beginnings in his backyard shed to a 1500 m² workshop and helped more than 10,000 people with disabilities to fulfil their dreams.

“It was never intended to be a big business or enterprise,” said Lomman, who was awarded 2007 WA Young Australian of the Year for his work with Dreamfit.

“The whole drive behind it was to help people.”

DarrenIn May 2015, Dreamfit was acquired by Ability Centre, which provides services and support for people with disabilities in Western Australia. Lomman stayed on as Chief of Design and Innovation before becoming restless.

“Dreamfit had grown so big that it didn’t need me anymore, so I decided to unclip my entrepreneurial wings,” he said.

Lomman spent the next six months exploring new ideas.

“I had a blank canvas and could paint my own picture,” he said.

He wanted his next venture to involve 3D printing, but it was only after seeing that TV advertisement about plastic in our oceans that the picture began to take shape.

Like most Australians, Lomman has always separated his recyclable rubbish. However, while developing his idea for GreenBatch, he struggled to locate a plastic recycling plant in his state. He went on a tour of a material recovery facility, where further separation of materials occurs, and asked where they would be sent for recycling. He was met with a blank stare.

“That’s when I found out the truth behind our recycling industry,” Lomman said.

“[Plastic] is put on a ship and sold through the international waste market to whoever will buy it. We have zero reprocessing in WA.”

Lomman cast the net beyond his home state in search of an Australian PET (polyethylene terephthalate) recycling plant. He could only find a small facility in New South Wales that recycled just a portion of the state’s plastics.

“Not a single bottle that I had put into a recycling bin has ever been recycled in Australia,” Lomman said.

“I felt that we’d been lied to. I just thought, how the hell have we not dealt with this?”

Ideas into action

Frustration with the state of recycling — and a passion for 3D printing — helped foster Lomman’s vision for GreenBatch. His first idea was to design a desktop machine that would shred and melt plastic bottles to create filament; however, it proved too expensive and Lomman knew that sales would not cover his costs.

It was time to think big; rather than desktop machines, he decided to build an industrial-scale recycling plant. The original plan was to produce 300 kg of filament a week from recycled plastic.

“As I’ve got more supporters onboard, we’re now scaling the plant to 300 kg [of filament] an hour,” Lomman said.

Darren Lomman demonstrates 3D printing

Lomman demonstrating the 3D-printing process to students.

At this scale, Lomman predicts the plant will recycle approximately 131 million plastic bottles a year.

“We’re going to have to create other product lines and we’ll keep going until not a single PET bottle leaves the WA shore, because how else can we guarantee that the plastic is not going to end up in a waste incinerator or a landfill or a river that feeds our oceans?”

Building a community

Financial investment has been vital to getting GreenBatch off the ground, but rather than looking to the world of venture capital, Lomman chose to ask the community for help.

“I did not want to take commercial investors onboard with this,” he said.

“I want it to be driven by environmental gains for the community.”

Lomman launched a crowdfunding campaign in October last year, with the aim of raising $50,000. It ran for four weeks and raised $70,000.

“It was one of the biggest crowdfunding campaigns to come out of WA,” he said.

If Lomman is successful with a recent grant application, he might soon be able to draw a salary from his enterprise. WorleyParsons is contributing pro bono support for the plant design and UWA has provided Lomman with office space to work from, access to its network, plus eight student interns to assist him. It has also provided the land on which the facility will be built.

The layout of the Greenbatch recycling plant.

Kent Anderson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UWA, describes the university’s involvement with GreenBatch as an “anchor” for the enterprise.

“Getting your first big partner is essential because it enables you to get your second,” he said.

“Darren came to us when the business was at a nascent stage and we were like, ‘wow’. We believe GreenBatch is going to become big very quickly.”

Secondary schools have also been willing partners and GreenBatch is currently working with 50 schools across the state. Lomman hopes to increase the number to 300 next year.

Hannah Fay, science teacher at Santa Maria College, a pilot school in the GreenBatch program, said students are learning vital lessons from their involvement.

“From an education perspective, GreenBatch not only shows students the importance of considering their environmental impact, but it also encourages them to look beyond the standard career and into more innovative roles,” she said.

GreenBatch is working with 50 secondary schools from across Western Australia.

Leading the way

The GreenBatch recycling facility is predicted to be up and running by July 2019. Lomman said he is overwhelmed by the support he has received from the community.

“Plenty of people say that this should be the responsibility of government,” he said.

“I put my hand up and said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to wait. I’m doing something about it.”

Susan Kreemer Pickford, General Manager, WA Engineers Australia, and a member of the GreenBatch Corporate Advisory Board, met Lomman a decade ago when he was still involved with Dreamfit. She believes he is a natural leader.

“He has the self-belief to forge a mission that people will follow,” she said.

“It doesn’t come from ego, but from wanting to step up and do something. Darren has put himself out there and people want to get behind him because it’s good for the whole community.”

With the GreenBatch recycling facility still at design stage, Lomman is focused on building his network of supporters.

“It takes pigheaded determination to fight through all the naysayers and the people who don’t respond because it’s not on their radar,” he said.

“But I’m pushing it and I’m driving it. I can’t do it on my own, but what I can hopefully do is inspire others to join me.”

Darren Lomman will share how we can give plastic waste a second life at the upcoming World Engineers Convention. To learn more and to register, click here


How necessity inspires invention in the mind of engineer James Trevelyan

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Professor James Trevelyan opens up about the many inspired inventions that have characterised his vast career.

Pointing across his office to the small appliance projecting cool air, Professor James Trevelyan gives a working example of his engineering philosophy — that necessity is the mother of invention.

He said that good engineering enables people to do more and live more comfortably, and with greater certainty, less effort and less consumption of energy.

But it was a lack of good engineering — regular power outages on hot nights in his wife’s native Pakistan — that inspired that small, quietly humming air conditioning unit.

The Close Comfort air conditioner provides extremely energy-efficient cooling.

The invention, along with the rest of his body of work, won Trevelyan the Professions award in last year’s Western Australian of the Year Awards.

Trevelyan, an Engineers Australia Fellow and University of Western Australia School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering Winthrop Professor, laughs as he recalled a night when it was 40°C indoors with 70 to 80 per cent humidity.

“We had a battery inverter that could generate about 300 W, so I was trying to think of something that would run on that amount of power,” he said.

The result was Close Comfort, a tiny portable air conditioner that creates a microclimate providing localised cooling.

Conventional air-conditioning technology focuses on cooling entire buildings, but Trevelyan said that wastes energy when it is actually just the people who require cooling.

“Close Comfort runs on 300 W, whereas a conventional air conditioner for a room of this size” — about 5 m x 5 m — “would require 2.5 kW or more, so it is incredibly energy efficient,” he said.

Close Comfort produces a near laminar stream of air and directs it to where cooling is needed, as opposed to creating a turbulent air flow that mixes up the air in a room.

Trevelyan said the machine also exploits human physiology, which dictates that if the face is being cooled then it will have a flow-on effect to the rest of the body.

Based in Perth, Trevelyan’s company, Close Comfort, is now marketing its namesake product in five countries, including developing countries like India and Pakistan.

Shear genius

Trevelyan also led the team that pioneered sheep-shearing robots for the wool industry between 1976 and 1989.

“At the time we realised we needed a different kind of education, because it didn’t make sense for engineers to learn how to write software on the job, or learn how to design electronics on the fly,” he said.

“So it was projects like the sheep-shearing robot and other similar projects around the world at the time which gave rise to the field of mechatronics.”

The team decided the traditional hand-shearing tool was the best way to cut wool and so set out to emulate expert shearers and recreate their skills in a machine.

The robot used a machine vision system to generate geometric models of the sheep’s surface, determining the arm trajectories and providing feed-forward information into the cutter motion-control system.

While the robot was not put into widespread use, the team found that the system provided a successful working example of sensor-based control, trajectory adaptation and online strategy planning.

In 1993, Trevelyan led a team of students to create “Australia’s Telerobot on the Web”, a six-axis industrial robot linked to the internet and one of the earliest demonstrations of the Internet of Things.


James Trevelyan’s pioneering sheep-shearing robot emulated expert shearers.

A thirst for more

Today, at 70, Trevelyan is not slowing down. He told create that life keeps on getting faster. He is turning his attention to providing clean drinking water in developing countries where water supply utilities are a “disaster”.

The main cost is not in filtration, he said, but in distributing safe water.

“I would like to create a water distribution system where people see value for money and will repay the cost of the service,” he said.

“We need a deeper understanding of people’s behaviour and value perceptions around our engineering work, and that has to be as much a part of an engineer’s knowledge as any technical discipline.

“It’s not rocket science, yet holds immense potential for Australian firms.”  

Making it count

Some of Professor James Trevelyan’s later research has examined how engineers create commercial value from their work.

“A lot of the engineers I interviewed often said they spent their time looking at spreadsheets or signing off on design specification documents and that they don’t get to do any ‘real engineering’,” he told create.

“My goal is to say to engineers who think they are not doing anything fancy that they actually are creating immense value by enabling investors to invest big money by reducing the apparent risks or protecting social and economic value already invested.”

James Trevelyan will be speaking on the topic of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the World Engineers Convention 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne. 

Register now.

Agricultural robots will help farmers feed the world – and do it sustainably

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Agricultural robots could address productivity and labour demands on farms, as well as help farmers operate more sustainably.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh’s work at the University of Sydney’s world-leading Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) has taken in automated stevedoring, aerospace, mining, farming and more.

Sukkarieh is best known for his work on agricultural robotics, which has earned him honours that include a nomination for the 2019 New South Wales Australian of the Year and the CSIRO Eureka Prize in 2017.

Agricultural robotics offer a highly promising set of technologies that seem on the cusp of adoption on farms.

“I’d never been a specific industry person; I’ve always just been interested in systems engineering, together with, when it’s possible, field robotics,” Sukkarieh told create of his work on ‘agbots’, which began early this century with weed identification using drones.

“I have been doing a lot of agricultural robotics work, but simultaneously I did some work for Qantas and I’ve been doing work in mining. But yes, the main focus is agriculture; that’s where a lot of the action is at the moment now, to try and see how we can help the farmers.”

Salah Sukkarieh with agbot Ladybird, which can check on the health of crops.

Sukkarieh was Director of the ACFR’s research and innovation efforts — a constant push and pull of development, application, then further development based on how technology performs with industrial partners — from 2007 to 2018.

Part of the reason he stepped down from the role last year was to step up his efforts to bring agricultural robots to commercial reality.

Home on the range

This nearly market-ready concept of ‘smart farming’ will be a part of the World Engineers Convention (WEC) 2019 this 20-22 November, at which Sukkarieh will present.

WEC 2019 focuses on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and smart farming fits with one of six themes at the event: ‘Engineering for Humanity’.

Helping farmers and, in turn, helping feed a global population that is estimated to reach almost 9.7 billion by 2050 is a goal of increasingly sophisticated farming methods.

According to the ACFR, the technology drive began with sensing on farms, followed by the application of data analytics, decision-making software, and eventually — driven by increasingly powerful computation — the real-time use of data necessary for field robotics to be used.

Growing season

The farming sector has a set of difficulties to overcome. Farm workers have an average age of 56 in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. End customers and therefore supermarkets and grocers are demanding perfect fruit. There is a shortage of available labour.

And there is a need to operate more sustainably. Sustainably grown food is something of a passion for Sukkarieh.

“I think there’s something in me that likes and wants to focus on how do we help the environment and how do we help the stewards of the environment, which are the farmers,” he said.

“Robotics are going to see reduced chemical use as well as help them optimise their use of things like planning for weeds and so forth.”

One recent project that will assist greater sustainability is SwagBot.

SwagBot is a four-wheeled, solar-powered robot able to navigate undulating terrain and obstacles such as logs.

It can be remote-controlled by a person or go through a pre-set route while applying collision avoidance algorithms and GPS.

It originated as a low-cost vehicle for smallholder farmers, funded by a three-year philanthropic donation and a one-year grant from Meat and Livestock Australia, a repeat collaborator with the ACFR.

It can tackle problems in grazer farms like weeding, tracking animal health through various sensors, and collecting soil samples.

“We started looking for new sensors, new machine-learning techniques, new types of robotics, to be able to do weeding based on a small sampling basis,” Sukkarieh said.

“We’ve done all that in the last few years.”

Being able to cut down on herbicide use through mechanical or precision spot weeding is appealing for both cost-saving and sustainability reasons.

Having a solar-powered robot for precision farming would mean fewer emissions from spent diesel from the distribution of agrochemicals.

Besides the sustainability and productivity gains that smart farming offers, it also promises a move away from chasing economies of scale.

Instead of bigger machines and more chemicals, having robots and data available at the plant level shifts the focus away from commoditisation.

Asked if he sees an expectation for engineers to deliver more sustainable solutions, whether for a farm or elsewhere, Sukkarieh said yes.

“I don’t think we’re getting much of an option, because I think everyone realises the urgency given our finite resources,” he said.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of and an effort to understand what sustainability means, both in engineering and in general. And so I think that has become important and I think there’s more awareness.”

Field and sky

Sukkarieh’s work has relevance beyond land-bound applications. A concept study for Qantas on efficient flight planning has grown into a major project between the carrier and the ACFR.

The eventual results will be rolled out over the course of this year.

Named Constellation, the system builds on path-planning work on drones, picking the best possible route based on parameters like weather and traffic flow.

“It dawned on us that we could improve the flight planning using mathematical optimisation and deep-learning techniques, as well as path planning algorithms that we could maybe develop to give you more efficient routes,” Sukkarieh said.

“If you have more efficient routes, then you also use less fossil fuels and also emit less carbon into the air.”

The five-year project on Constellation began with five research fellows. Over time, the team grew to 15 at the ACFR, with roughly the same number contributing at Qantas.

The system picks an optimal solution using millions of data points, considering the best path, speed and altitude for flight, and operating within safety and other constraints.

It produces a ‘cost map’ at the end. According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald from December 2018, the subtle changes suggested by the system could save nearly a percentage point on fuel, representing $40 million based on Qantas’s annual bill.

‘Engineering for Humanity’ is one of the themes at the World Engineers Convention (WEC) 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne.